The Re-Emergence of Science Fiction's Legitimacy

The Re-Emergence of Science Fiction's Legitimacy

Michael Chabon's defense of science fiction indicates a growing acceptance of the genre as literature.

Discussing the merits of science fiction books in public can be a little stigmatizing. The nuances of Bradbury over Clarke, the inherent brilliance of Asimov’s Foundations, and the recent spat of more literary types like Cormac McCarthy and Colson Whitehead “classing up” the genre. Of course, the uninitiated (and often disdainful) will shoot you an eye roll or even slyly inquire about what your topic of conversation. Upon finding out, as a coworker of mine did at a recent work function, they’ll smirk and walk away. Why does everyone hate on sci-fi? A recent guest on Underwire’s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, Michael Chabon is the author of a diverse body of work, including the book turned major motion picture Wonderboys and the recently released Disney sci-fi adventure epic John Carter.

Michael Chabon’s genesis as a writer is in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the John Carter character, a fact he elaborates upon in his interview. (He even took to signing his name Michael “Burroughs” Chabon for awhile.) He laments the culture of the writing establishment, admitting that as he was coming up through various undergraduate and graduate writing programs, if he had, “had more courage or integrity I might have stood up to it more than I did.” Still, the establishment largely dictates the delineation between literature and pulp, which is largely a trick of marketing. Chabon says he takes much of his inspiration from Charles Dickens and other authors of the turn of the century that would write broadly about whatever tickled their interest. “The reasons why it changed… [are] economic and financial and marketing reasons, and they have to do with snobbery and academic laziness.”

Could generations of publishing companies honing the market actually have pushed people to an inherent dislike of sci-fi and fantasy stories? Has public interest been conditioned by those same factors that, as Chabon accuses, have more to do with academic snobbery and laziness? Absolutely. In fact, if you look at the previous thirty years of book writing, until very recently there have not been an incredible number of sci-fi or fantasy novels hitting the New York bestseller’s list when compared to other genres. Certainly in college writing programs you won’t see those genres in the curriculum. Still, something is happening now that is starting to change all of that., and I believe it began with movies.

Film has been an incredible boon to the sci-fi and fantasy genres (though you can make the case not to the book publishing industry). As movies get bigger and special effects get better there’s a public hunger for blockbuster sci-fi and fantasy, and with breakout novel series in those genres like Harry-Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games we’re starting to see a revitalization of the genres. Granted the examples I’ve mentioned here are still fairly one-dimensional and entertainment driven, but they are instilling a love of the magical and supernatural in readers. As the Hunger Games fans of today grow up and their tastes mature, we may see a broadening of the market for intellectual and socially-relevant science fiction once again.

If nothing else, we’re surely going to see a greater mainstream acceptance of science fiction from kids that grew up on Hunger Games and new Star Wars movies carrying those interests into adulthood. It will be similar with what’s happened to video games, going from the province of teenaged misfits and “nerds” to the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world.